“All work is honorable.” - Bill MacKillop
During my college years, I prepared to go to work at the midnight hour while my roommates prepared for bed by climbing under their warm blankets and turning off the light. Sunday through Thursday evenings, I packed up supplies for my graveyard shift job and left the house at 11:45 p.m with 8 hours worth of food and books for studying. I drove the empty roads of Tallahassee with darkness serving as my only companion, except for the occasional glow of a television set coming from passing homes, or street lights illuminating my way. At work, I answered phones all night long at an answering service for doctor’s offices, plumbers, and AAA.
Without this income, a higher education would have been out of reach for me. I accepted the position because it allowed me to be a full-time employee while attending college full-time by offering the opportunity to study on the job. Phones don’t ring constantly in the wee hours of the night.
As a former graveyard shift worker, I’ve always loved Edward Hopper’s painting, “Nighthawks,” even before American Family Insurance brought it to life in a commercial. The lonely darkness outside that diner resonates with me, as do the individuals inside, reminding me of my own isolated nights on empty streets, passing empty businesses where the employees had locked up and gone to a comfortable home for the night. Alone with my dreams of an easier day. Dreams propelled my younger self forward when sleep eluded me and classes required my presence at 9 a.m.
Maybe I’m injecting dreams into the subjects of the painting, but I wonder if the man with his back to us is looking at want ads for a job. Maybe the counter help wanted to open his own restaurant, but couldn’t afford the investment. The couple on the far side of the diner has no place they need to be and lounge around, drinking coffee in the midnight hours. The darkened building across the street from the diner hints of ghosts who only came out during the daylight bustling business hours.
And maybe dreams aren’t the subject at all. Maybe the counter help loves serving folks, making small talk, feeling a connection with customers. Maybe the guy with his back to us just got off work at a hospital and needs some downtime before going home. But I tend to attribute dreams to people, because so often I hear those dreams and longings expressed in conversations.
A few months ago, our pastor did a sermon series on work, telling of the many people who arrive in his office for counseling around their unsatisfying work situation. Sometimes people feel a call to a very different life than the one they’re living, and they’re confused. They’re desperate for change, longing for the opportunity to do this other thing, follow that other passion. He counsels people to look at their jobs as “the economic engine” that allows them to pursue an art, a passion, schooling, whatever.
For others, the economic engine provides the opportunity to buy airline tickets to visit loved ones, live without financial stress, contribute to worthy causes with generosity, etc. For me, working full-time from midnight to eight in the morning, forty hours a week during college, provided the economic engine to earn a degree.
But let’s talk about dreams. Not all hard work guarantees our dreams come true. How many folks really land in the perfect fitting job for a lifetime? I graduated from college, and eventually found a job as a television engineer, but I wouldn’t count that as my dream job. All those graveyard shifts and middle of the night studying failed to produce the path I created in my mind. But was the work on my part just a waste? I think not. An education is never wasted. Eventually, I stayed home and raised my sons. Now, that was my dream job. But the sons grew up and moved away, and I needed to find different work. And the cycle continued.
Work arrived in the very beginning, according to the book of Genesis. There was a lush garden and the inhabitants were told to work the garden – for their benefit. Then that nasty little incident happened with the apple, resulting in banishment from the garden to go and work and cultivate the fields forever more outside paradise.
But to the unemployed, would banishment to work the fields sound all that bad?
Yes, if working the fields meant you now had thistles and weeds to battle, and poor yields, invading storms, etc. Haven’t we all experienced those weeds and thistles in the form of unresponsive management, poor quality products, boring work tasks, shortage of needed funds, hard work that never seems to bare the kind of fruit you imagined when you accepted the job?
My husband and I often find ourselves talking with people about their lack of work, unsatisfying work, make-do work, and tenuous work—those jobs someone would never choose for themselves, but that are needed to pay bills for a season. All those pesky weeds and thistles. Many of us will likely have a season where we must make ends meet in ways that are less than fulfilling. So we share the quote above, that all work is honorable (as long as it’s legal!), especially when someone feels demeaned by their circumstances. It’s honorable to work at an answering service, in a restaurant, or a warehouse, or office. It’s honorable to work in a home and care for a family, forgoing a paycheck. It’s honorable to show up and do something—sometimes anything—that is deemed productive and helpful in some capacity.
Everyone should be honored for being helpful.
What does it say about our work values if people feel demeaned in certain positions? Recently, I’ve met a limo driver who was a veterinarian in Poland and a lab tech worker in a hospital who was a cardiologist in Lithuania. Talk about being overqualified for your jobs. But I did not detect bitterness because sometimes the work isn’t the only dream people hold.
Not only is all work honorable, but work is necessary. We need the workers and positions out there to keep a country and a world moving, to keep folks fed, and healed, and taught. But we often morph work into something else: our identity, our place in the sun, our satisfaction. Bertrand Russell once said, “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
But work is important, with the right perspective and a sense of balance. Ask anyone who hasn’t been able to find work. Ask about their empty days, the hours that feel endless, the repetitiveness of getting up and watching the hands on the clock go by while cars pass your house filled with drivers, coffee mug in hand, traveling to their jobs.
I know those feelings because my husband has experienced the punch-in-the-gut experience of unemployment, the phone call announcing your company has been sold, gone under, decided to downsize, that takes your breath away momentarily as your son’s college tuition bill passes through your mind. But Bill learned to stay busy during those brief seasons. He learned to find meaning, to find “work” that didn’t necessarily provide a paycheck but gave him a purpose at the start of the day after the coffee pot had been drained. He worked on friends’ houses or on our house, mentored young men, job hunted, and met in a huddle with neighbors from the high-tech field who found themselves in the same uncertain season. He just stayed busy.
Leo Tolstoy had it right when he said, “A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
If you are one of those folks who find your job meets with your passion and giftedness, you are blessed indeed. For the rest of us, there can be a paycheck, there can be joy – or not. But some task that includes “work which one hopes may be of some use,” now there’s a goal we can all attain.